Ravenloft: The Shadow Fallen
It begins with a tingle of anticipation—a sense of dread or hope, but nothing more. Out of the blue, the residents of a village sense that someone or something will soon enter their lives. Then the handbills appear—eerie, teasing flyers, promising that the Carnival is near. By the next morning, the painted wagons will be rolling into town. To those who flock to its spectacle, the Carnival is a traveling freak show that offers a “safe” glimpse of the abnormal and the unnatural. For once in their lives, for just a penny or two, common folk can stand in the light of day and examine the boogeymen that haunt their nightmares.
However, the Carnival is more than a simple sideshow, and its performers are more than mere freaks on display. Under the protection of the mysterious Mistress Isolde, the Carnival offers refuge to those rejected by the world. Often, it comes ot the aid of those who simply need to disappear, secreting them away into the Mists. Freakshow or haven, monsters or allies—it’s all a matter of perspective.
The Carnival is an Island of Terror of sorts, a domain to itself, but it wanders. Unlike most Islands, which are locked away in the Mists until someone stumbles onto them, the Carnival is constantly on the move and seems to respect none of the usual laws concerning Mistways, travel, or even closed domain borders. The carnies credit their ability to find their way in the Land of Mists to their leader, Isolde, but it is also because of her that they can never rest anywhere for long. The Carnival rarely stays in one place longer than three days before it is on the move once again. This life of ceaseless roving fits most of its people just fine, but others are resentful of their vagabond lifestyle.
In truth, the Carnival never stays anywhere very long because of the curse that follows it. The carnies call it the Twisting, a magical affliction that gradually transforms a person’s form to more closely resemble their spirit, making them on the outside what they already are on the inside. Since no one is without fault or flaw, this inevitably manifests as strange and bizarre deformities, leaving the victims outcasts and freaks with nowhere to go—save to stay with the Carnival.
There are several dozen people associated with the traveling circus and sideshow, most of whom are “natural” freaks, folk whose deformities or unusual life choices made them unwelcome among their own people. They have found a home and family among the tents of the Carnival, and most would gladly give their lives for Isolde, even if they themselves don’t understand what she really is.
It’s a carnival! Who doesn’t love those? More specifically, the Carnival exists to add in an element of the bizarre and inexplicable to the setting that can simply appear randomly and then vanish again without warning. The narrative of the Carnival is one of community through shared adversity, in this case physical and mental defects that make otherwise decent people out to be monsters. The Carnival also exists to push the idea that “different is not evil”; though the “freaks” of the Carnival are bizarre and even terrifying in cases, most of them are genuinely good folk who just want a life of their own.
Carnivals and freakshows have been part of the horror genre for a long time. One of the first horror films of the talking motion pictures era was Freaks!, considered so shocking for its time that its director’s career never recovered. Since then, carnivals and horror have been inextricably intertwined, through such media as Carnival of Souls, The Devil’s Carnival, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Carnivale, and the recent American Horror Story: Freakshow.
- Ugliness and Beauty: A pretty face can hide an ugly soul—but not in the Carnival. The Twisting brings all of a person’s inner darkness to the fore, making them on the outside what they already feel themselves to be on the inside. The mirrors of the funhouse reflect a visitor’s sins, while the fortune tellers see their clients’ dark future should they not change their ways. Everything in the Carnival exists to remind people that they’re all freaks in their own way, all ugly—and all beautiful.
- Freakshow: The main attraction of the Carnival is its vast array of freaks, people whose bodies and talents run toward the ghastly and the macabre. While most of the freaks in the Carnival are also performers and showmen of one sort or another, none of them have any illusions about the real reason people come to see them. Everyone in the Carnival is twisted from the human norm in one way or another, from the woman with scales to the man with a tiger’s head to the legless boy and armless girl. Even the carnival’s clowns are bizarre and freakish; though they seem normal enough in appearance, they wear garish black-and-white skull makeup and never speak in public, making them unnerving to be around.
- House of Mirrors: The Carnival is a place where beauty and ugliness get mixed up, where inside and outside are switched, where freaks are normal and normal people are freaks. Naturally, this makes it hard to get one’s bearings. Things are rarely as they seem on the surface, and even people who wear their sins on the skins can be difficult to understand. Even in a family like the Carnival’s freaks there are factions, some of whom are tolerated more than loved, and some of whom are far more dangerous than they seem.